From the Story Circles- Archives
Lake Street Story Circle Archive is an edited collection of poems, images, visual art and stories gathered from 2020-2021 in the Twin Cities about people's experiences with the Coronavirus and Uprising after the murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police department. The stories gathered will also be woven into the ensemble based performance Life Born of Fire premiering August 5, 2022. (More about the performance HERE)
A featured Story Circle is with Poet Bryan Thao Worra and includes ASL by Jamilliah Holman
There comes a time as a poet when you wonder if instability is your new normal. Over the last few years I found myself thinking back often to the advice of a poet I once met who felt that if you can go without “everything,” you’re capable of anything. There is much to unpack within that sustaining sentiment, and it became vital to me during the pandemic.
At the beginning of 2020 I’d been approaching the year with great anticipation as the final point of recovery as a homeless poet from North Minneapolis rebuilding from scratch. Bobbing up and down near the poverty line, this was particularly vital as my hearing impairment and other health issues were becoming an issue.
Over the last three years since I’d become homeless, I was resourceful enough to find a patchwork of places to stay while I regained my footing, and had been appointed by the governor to the Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans representing the Lao community. Although unpaid, I now led an international poetry society with over 400 members in 19 nations. I’d been a recent keynote speaker for the League of Minnesota Poets fall conference and presented at the Smithsonian’s Asian American Literature Festival in Washington D.C. while winding down an 18-month project as a recipient of the Joyce Award to present an exhibit about the upcoming 45th anniversary of the Lao diaspora after the end of the Laotian Civil War in 1975.
I was releasing my newest book in seven years, and after 17 years I was finally able to return to Southeast Asia for the first time, and with a substantial body of work to share with my former homeland and fellow refugees and immigrants in diaspora. Modifying a line from the old film Thelma and Louise, I wasn’t out of the woods, but I could see it from here. But as they say these days, then things went all 2020.
I previously anticipated numerous celebrations in 2020 marking the tenth anniversary of two of my largest projects, the Lao American Writers Summit at the Loft Literary Center and the Legacies of War: Refugee Nation Twin Cities exhibit held at Intermedia Arts in collaboration with Pangea World Theater, the Lao Assistance Center, and TeAda Productions when we looked at the lingering crisis of unexploded cluster bombs still contaminating 30% of Laos decades since the end of the Vietnam War. Many of those weapons had been manufactured in Minnesota, and that exhibit played a significant role in raising the visibility of the issue in Minneapolis and across our state, which has the third largest population of Lao refugees in the country after California and Texas.
In order to fulfill my standing grant and fellowship obligations, I opted to economize at the end of 2019 in order to travel for my research and to create, putting my few remaining belongings in storage. While I was overseas in January 2020, I had just enough to get by. I couldn’t see everything I hoped after nearly two decades away, but I saw most of what I wanted, needed to see, gaining a new understanding of what it meant to be a community, a people, to heal and recover from conflict. At that point in Asia, we understood something was happening, and remembering other epidemics of the past people were already starting to be cautious, but not panicked. We were all taking precautions.
By the time I returned back to Minnesota, many states were already starting to go into lockdown, hoarding began, and rumors and dismissals became the norm. In some circles, a certain hushed gallows humor emerged: “This is their first apocalypse, and it shows.”
Let me be candid that there were few people interested in renting an affordable apartment in North Minneapolis in the spring to a displaced poet who recently traveled to Asia in the middle of the Uprising. But I really couldn’t blame anyone. It did, however, force me north for the first time in the 22+ years since I first moved to Minnesota. For a few weeks I lived discretely out of my car in rural areas where it was risky, but not impossible.
As a homeless poet, I had a number of unique circumstances that allowed me to be resilient even as I found myself with little to my name except my car and my storage locker. My exhibits and speaking engagements were canceled or forced online, which, while better than nothing, severely restricted my ability to connect with my audiences and community the way that’s particularly meaningful to Lao poets. For context, Lao poets are at a unique point in our history, searching for our particular purpose as we transition from a 700-year old monarchy into democracy while scattered across the globe. It’s liberating in one sense, but for most of us it will be far too easy to become adrift or to wither from “irrelevance” and obscurity.
I am grateful that a number of emergency funds including support from Springboard for the Arts and the Minnesota State Arts Board as well as private individuals were able to buy me enough time and enough resources to keep in connection with my community as we all adapted to the uncertainty. There was a rash of anti-Asian hate crimes taking place across the country, and being isolated and on my own in cities where I had few prior connections or experiences was daunting to say the least. I feel fortunate that I never ran into any serious danger in the Iron Range or the North Shore during this period. Ultimately a generous friend learned of my situation and allowed me indefinite access to a guest room near Duluth until it would be possible for me to return to North Minneapolis comfortably.
During this time, I found myself re-examining how I approached my art. As a poet in Minnesota, even after 2 decades my books aren’t sold in Minnesota bookstores or libraries, and I’ve been fortunate to have community support that allows me to present my work as public art. Most of my mentees and I were already connected across the globe by e-mail and messenger apps, anyway, and now I had a greater reason than ever to perfect online presentations.
Still, I often felt like the technology was about as reliable as the Cone of Silence from the old spy sit-com Get Smart. My hearing impairment led me to shy away from group readings and to focus on recording instead in the remote rural areas of Minnesota near Lake Superior and other works of public art at locales such as the Franconia Sculpture Park or various statues of Paul Bunyan and relics of Route 66, looking for Laomerica during our 45th anniversary. Who we’d been, who we were becoming.
I took up watercolors and ink sketching again with the additional time I found myself faced with while sheltering in place, both for therapy and a way of pushing myself to become comfortable trying new things. It was very energizing. Many sketchbooks were filled.
I wasn’t anywhere close to “good,” but I felt newly comfortable being “bad” at other arts in ways that would take a whole different essay to explain. I felt it was healthy growing into new risks like this, even as I also developed an appreciation and a lament for the bigger risks others were comfortable taking.
I continue to remain dismayed at how many Minnesotans have taken it upon themselves to actively flood the Lao refugee community with misinformation about COVID and to cast doubts upon science and public health. I dread what the final assessment will look like of who we lost during this time, even as I admire how many of my fellow refugees rose to the occasion to share the best of their wisdom, their compassion and generosity.
The challenge ahead? I wonder how my fellow artists and I will become a true part of the Minnesota cultural landscape. Our traditions reach back across centuries but as we approach 50 years in the US, we have not made significant moves to establish permanent cultural centers and presentation spaces where the next generation can learn, grow, create and share in our own words and on our own terms. In the Before Times, even the most generous and successful philanthropists of our community feared it would be next to impossible to raise the initial funds, let alone the sustaining funds to keep a vital cultural center viable. Watching so many other arts spaces collapse in the aftermath of COVID-19 did little to reassure them that there was any better solution than keeping our artists semi-nomadic and nimble.
As a poet, I’ve spoken of the Laomagination and on occasion a sense of Laoptimism. We’ve worked with less for so long, I often wonder what we’d even do if we were flush with cash and fully resourced to carry out all of our dream projects. But one thing is for sure, one way or another, we must now imagine greater for all of our sakes, not only in Minnesota but across the globe.
ASL by Jamilliah Holman
Bryan Thao Worra
Story with ASL